22 July 2024

21 July 2024 – Unitarians in Ringwood connect in hope with Unitarians nationally

On 21 July we were delighted to welcome Mary Jones, Lay Leader in Training with Portsmouth Unitarians, and to have Mary lead our gathering.

The central table in the Meeting House laid ready for our gathering for reverence.  White table cloth, central chalice containing a large candle, tea light candles surrounding it.

Mary had been commissioned to go to the Annual Meetings of the General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christians in Northampton in April, as the delegate for the Southern Unitarian Association.  And in leading our gathering on 21 July, Mary brought back the messages from the Annual Meetings, and specifically from the Anniversary Service, which is always the high point of the whole event.

The theme of our gathering was “The Ring of Hope”, and it included a story adapted from Jewish tradition regarding the strength of belief and how it can warp our vision; a poem from climate activist and author Claire Rousell, “Being Good Ancestors”; a blessing from Maori tradition; and a discussion in the round regarding what we can see of the future facing our grandchildren and their children.  We also had a number of hymns from our purple hymnbooks (thanks to the Portsmouth congregation for the loan of them), and a beautiful rendition of a song by Sir Elton John, taken from the film Moulin Rouge.

Quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, written out by hand: "When it is dark enough, you can see the stars."

It was Mary’s optimistic view that when we see good change in our own lives, we can have hope for good change in other’s lives, and she took great pleasure in taking much inspiration from the Address given by Rev Ant Howe at the Anniversary service.  It was a rich homily and hard to prĂ©cis, but if you are prepared to do a little work (and make a small donation, if you like?) you can download a magazine that includes a brilliant write up of Ant’s Address, at Issue 8081 of The Inquirer, here https://www.inquirer.org.uk/pages/samples  (cover shown in image below).

The take home point was : for those who crave a space to contend with life’s big problems, a way to connect with their spirituality, and a community with which to do that, they can still find that with us.  Within our Unitarian faith, there is a way of being religious and a community to share the journey with, that can be thing some souls are searching for — and we are not dead yet.  The task now is to wake up, strengthen what remains, and move forward, because people do need our faith.

Front cover of issue 8081 of the magazine titled The Inquirer, showing a photo of Rev Ant Howe taken at the Anniversary Service

And with that in mind it was lovely, afterwards, to recall that the next regional gathering of Unitarians and their friends will be on Saturday 7 September 2024, at the Unitarian Meeting House, High St, Newport (Isle of Wight).  Everyone is welcome (email lucyunbox.ringwood@btinternet.com for further information).

20 June 2024

PrideTide celebrated by #Unitarians in Ringwood 16 June 2024


an array of short stubby candles, in the full spectrum of colours, all burning brightly

This gathering had all the usual elements one might imagine of something that looks remarkably like a church service:  

– an initial phase of self-critique, unknotting and letting go; 

– an activity (singing a hymn) to draw everyone together; 

– a period of prayer, allowing the recognition of the littleness of humanity when placed against the vista of the cosmos; 

– a couple of contrasting readings to stretch the intellect, and perhaps to open doors to new landscapes; 

– atmospheric musical interludes to allow us to make sense beyond words of what we were hearing; 

– a reflection by the leader on the two readings, leading to a suggestion for future action;

– a period of active listening in which those matters weighing heavily or joyfully upon us could be declared and shared;

– prayer of self-dedication, helping us to listening for what is being asked of us in the day ahead and more generally;

– more group activity in reciting together some favoured words, and singing another hymn; and

– some closing words.

So that’s that, then. What remains to be said?  Well, how about what was actually said?

a turquoise ceramic candle stand, looking like a very very shallow goblet, supporting a short white candle, lit.

This gathering was celebrating PrideTide, the month of June specifically and the summer months in general, when, widely, queer people celebrate who they are and what life means to them.  

For some, Pride means celebrating their survival in a hostile environment, perhaps against the odds.  For others, it might feel freer and more joyful, a chance to truly express who they are.  The support of families and allies can be acknowledged, too.  The period of Pride is also a time when perhaps everyone, queer or not, can recognise the contribution of queer perspectives to every field of life.

Didymus is a group gathering in the name of religious faith and spirituality, so this gathering in PrideTide looked at queer theology — how queer perspectives can shed new insights on our inheritance (which is the bundle of stories regarding Jesus, and how those stories can shape our daily living).

So how about the readings?  Well, the first was from the Gospel of Thomas (verses 22 and 106) in which Jesus says, When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter the Kingdom.

The second reading was from a book by a priest in the Episcopalian Church (an Anglican Church based in the USA), Rev Elizabeth Edman. Title: Queer Virtue. Edman suggests that Jesus breaks down simplistic dualisms all the time, which resonates very strongly with queer people, who have had to do the same thing in their own lives, simply to make a space in which they can live.  And that looking at the stories in Christianity from a queer perspective may cascade a whole new set of insights, about those Christian stories, that in the end would help everyone claiming a life within Christianity to act more aligned with the espoused spirit of the faith.

And when it came to reflecting on those readings, the president of the day included a review of recent statistics from England and Wales regarding hate crime against queer people, and reports about global campaigning against oppression of queer people, from the campaigning group All Out.

She said, “It’s always worth looking at statistics and reports like these.  We are so lucky in western Europe, where many countries have legislated for marriages of same-sex partners, that we can imagine that the fight has been won.  But it hasn’t. Not even here.  Not even in legal terms.  Equal marriage in UK does not extend to marriage for non-binary people.  The law specifies marriage as a contract between a man and a woman; between two men; or between two women.  At present, as I understand it, unless they perjure themselves and say they are something that they are not — unless they shoehorn themselves into one binary category or other as defined by the law — non-binary people in the UK cannot marry anyone at all. They have to pretend to be something they are not.”

Our president looked for ways that queer theology can help us in our lives of faith, and three examples she came up with all boiled down to helping us become more open than we currently are, and more humble.

She reminded us that there are ways and ways of welcoming people.  We can do it patronisingly, implicitly demanding that new people from minority groups conform to our existing ways before 'welcoming' them in; or we can recognise that our inherited way of worshipping, of thinking and talking about God and spirituality, is derived from white, male, middle class, colonial, intellectual and analytical thinking and judging and speaking, that stretches continuously back, way beyond the eighteenth century, in England and the broader UK.  And that we should be braver and invite new people in, not to help them, but to help us.  To help us see our failings and help us break down our narrow-minded ways, and the assumed hierarchies that lie buried behind our behaviour.  She suggested that there can be no hierarchies when it comes to children of God.

For ongoing action, she asked us to use this PrideTide to take a good hard look at ourselves, and humbly see how much we contribute to continuing problems today — and also to celebrate with queer communities everywhere !

A rainbow arcing up from a white cloud. Caption reads:  "What is needed is a debate about HOPE – we CAN change."

06 June 2024

The Trinity? In a #Unitarian gathering? Surely not – Unitarians in Ringwood gathering on 19 May 2024

Our gathering in the Meeting House on 19 May had both ritual and theological elements.

We do not encourage our service leaders (whom we refer to as 'presidents for the day') to spend a lot of time describing or defining theological ideas in our gatherings.  We rather like the quote attributed to the first English Queen Elizabeth, when she said that she “had no appetite for opening windows on men’s souls.”  She didn't want to know what each of her people believed; she wanted only that they could all worship together.

Generally, we prefer to spend our time together engaging in a practice; or at the very least, reflecting on a narratives from our common cultural religious background that inform our living.

But, despite our preference for practice rather than theory, the theory of religion cannot be altogether ignored, because people are often curious about what elements of faith go together to make up the Unitarian way of life; also, because we recognise that while practice is important, some of us remain thrilled by concepts and words and how they transform lives through the inner motifs they evoke.

A Bible lies open on a table.  Pairs of leaves of the book are rising as wings of birds, and are flying up and away.

The words that opened our gathering on 19th May represent the theological position that resonates with many of us, although we remember we can never be 100% sure.

“All that there is, is one, and that one is God.  It is as if all that there is, is one, and that one is God."

Then there was our normal practice element of reflecting on the past week, examining silently what we might do better another time.

Next there were two readings, looking forward a week to 26th May, which in other churches would be celebrated as Trinity Sunday.

The first reading was from Cyprian Smith.  It was an interpretation of the work of Meister Eckhart from the 13th/14th centuries.  Eckhart was a Roman Catholic priest, a mystic, who had had experiences of the divine that he tried to communicate to his contemporaries.  As with all mystics, he could only speak obliquely about what he had discovered on his spiritual journeying.  Naturally, Eckhart’s motif was the Holy Trinity of classical Christianity.  He wrote from his lived mystical experience about the relationships within the Trinity and the impact of the Trinity on human spirituality and relatedness to God.  Cyprian Smith is a current day Benedictine monk who attempts to clarify Eckhart’s rather difficult sermons and texts.  Despite Smith’s efforts, it was, nonetheless, rather mind-mangling.

The second reading was a description from a commentator on particle physics, Diarmuid O’Murchu.  The reading was about the discovery by physicists in the 1960s of what they identified as the ultimate building blocks of atoms: particles they named quarks.  And how since then, they have never managed to find a quark naturally existing in isolation.  Hadrons, which are the particles composed of quarks, have been artificially split using highly sophisticated technology.  But the quarks that came out of the splitting of the hadrons decayed in micro-instants. 

“The quarks were proving to be highly elusive, making sense only in groupings of two or three, displaying an elegant versatility to manifest their existence only in relationships. Quarks give up their family connections stubbornly, and then decay in a micro-instant, as if they have no way to survive out of relationship.  The capacity to relate seems to be at the heart of the quark world......... Across the sciences, there is mounting evidence for the fact that everything is created out of relatedness, sustained through relationships, and thrives on interdependence.”

Thankfully, with two such dense readings, there were plenty of musical interludes to allow us to muse on what we had heard.

a complicated pattern of coloured lines on a black background, generally in the form of interlocking circles and cross-overs

There were prayers, and a reflection by the president for the day on what the readings evoked in her.

This was wide ranging, and touched on references from other world faiths. She said, borrowing quite heavily again from Diarmuid O’Murchu, 

“The triune nature of God is something that is not unique to Christianity, but an archetypal phenomenon.  A way of dealing with the world, a key ingredient of universal life and culture.  It seems to me that the doctrine of the Trinity is an attempted expression that the essential nature of God is about relatedness and the capacity to relate....The real issue is not whether God is monotheistic or polytheistic.  What science – for so long the perceived enemy of religion – reveals and confirms is what many belief systems have been struggling to articulate: God is first and foremost a relatedness.”

And this was our closing blessing:

Let all we do be done in joy;

May we ever seek abundant living.

Let all we do be done in truth;

May we ever listen to the voice within.

Let all we do be done in love;

May affection for all that lives be the rule of our hearts.